The Pirate Captain Hook-All and His Solar-Powered Ship of Theseus

Scott Gardner

Like most of you, I’ve had a birthday sometime in the last year. And I think we can all agree that one per year is really more than we need. It’s like trash collection day: you can’t believe how often it comes around, nor how much of a mess you’ve made since the last one. It used to be that birthdays couldn’t come quickly enough. Festivities, invitations, cake varieties (i.e., which science fiction theme the cake had to represent), all were planned weeks or months in advance. In fact, my mother once went so far as to bury a plastic treasure chest full of toys in the back yard a whole year before my brother’s sixth birthday, so that its discovery during his pirate-themed party would seem all the more authentic. (My brother claims the toys were actually forgotten ones that were never found at my pirate-themed party a year earlier, but Mom denies this.)

Nowadays, though, birthdays in our house consist mainly of efforts to avoid getting out of bed and facing the prospect of yet another Sisyphean rotation around the sun. In lieu of cake we squirt whip cream in our coffee. For presents, we choose practical over playful. Present-opening dialogues go something like this: “Ooh, are these some leather equestrian breeches like the ones I accidentally left visible in an Amazon window on my computer the other day?” “No, it’s a 12-pack of black cotton socks.” “What’s in this envelope? Tickets to Summer Sonic?” “That’s your new health insurance card. The government says Happy Birthday.”

If our efforts to give meaningful gifts have largely failed, we might try to make up for it by taking a birthday trip somewhere special:

“I know, let’s go visit that new Zug’s Drugs store that just opened down the street!”

“Sounds great! They sell everything!”

We then get into the car, crank up the AC, and proceed to drive past two other ubiquitous Zug’s Drugs stores on our way to the one having its grand opening. It turns out to be a fruitful trip, though, because I can finally get a present for myself that I really need: a magnetic hook for storing computer and phone connectors, that says “This Magnet Does Hook All” on it.

It’s bad enough that, on my birthday, I hardly recognize my own face in the mirror; it’s gotten to the point now where I don’t recognize anyone giving me birthday greetings either. In fact, it’s quite possible that, though their names ring a bell, none of these people are the same ones I used to know. According to popular science, humans replace all their cells every 7-10 years. And the Ship of Theseus Paradox proposes that if all parts of a composed object have been replaced, we must question whether it is truly the selfsame object. Are you the same person you were 10 years ago when you, say, shoplifted that solar-powered flashlight from the “clearance” basket by the door on your way out of the local home center?...for example.

Some of you may object to my “7-10 years” assertion above, and for good reason, since apparently biologists now claim that total cell replacement is a myth, and many cells in the brain are actually never replaced. (They also stipulate that all scientific theories on human development are completely replaced every 7-10 years.) The presence of permanently-fixed brain cells of course makes much more sense when you consider how many of your friends from high school are still reveling in the same 1980s Lionel Richie and Frankie Goes to Hollywood songs they were swooning over as kids.

Now that I think about it, probably the most useful birthday present for me would be a few billion new brain cells. I wonder if Zug’s Drugs will exchange these socks.